Viva Piñata Chat Featuring Justin Cook

The Rare Witch Project and several other Rare communities have had an opportunity to speak with Viva Piñata designer Justin Cook.

He spent a generous two hours with us, answering many questions about the content and general design process of the game. A full transcript of the event can be found at the end of this article.

Viva Piñata: Trouble in Paradise releases for the Xbox 360 today in America and September 5th in Europe. The game features plenty of new modes, piñatas, and achievements to satisfy the Piñata fan in all of us. If you are not already planning on picking the title up on its launch day, hopefully the new information below will convince you to give it a chance.

NeoGAF: Is Piñata Vision going to eventually extend to items and accessories in the future, or is this just a piñata only feature?

Justin Cook: OK the cards are completely open. We can manipulate all sorts of things in the game. So we can change the weather, change the music, drop in fruit, veg or objects. Almost anything in the game is accessible with the cards.

Donkey Kong Universe: Shortly after the original Viva Piñata was released, a frequent comment was that you guys were waiting to see if the game's sales were doing well in order to start thinking about DLC. Then you made a whole new game. What would you say to those players who think that Trouble in Paradise is just an expansion and would've preferred to add new things via Xbox Live to a game they already have?

Justin Cook: We've done lots of things that we couldn't have done with DLC. We could have added new content but it wouldn't have interacted with the game in the same way as things that came on the disk. We didn't think that was a very good experience for players, where the sequel has allowed us to make new creatures that actually interect with the whole game.

Perfect Rare: At Rare the VP team have been working for more than four years on Viva PInata. Was it hard to come up with fresh ideas? And speaking of fresh ideas, what's in your opinion the best new feature you've included?

Justin Cook: New ideas were easy. Everyone on the team had something they wanted to add to the game, or a complaint about the old one that they wanted to fix. We had lots of ideas that we didn't have time for from the previous game and some new stuff popped up that was unexpected (like Piñata Vision). My favourite new feature is probably the neww seed packet UI which makes things much easier when you're busy in the garden.

Rare Witch Project: In VP:TiP three different wild cards will be obtainable per piñata through skill in the romance mini-game oppose to through luck like in the previous game. What level of difficulty are we looking at to earn the special types, especially for the rarer piñata? Will they be a simple matter of making it to the end in a decent amount of time without getting hit or will they be Blast Corps platinum medal frustrating?

Justin Cook: The wild cards are more difficult as the level of the pinata increases. I hope we've got the balance right so that you always feel as if you have a chance to get the wildcards without superhuman capabilities. That said the later ones are tricky and will need some practice.

Pinata Island: Hi Justin, I'll start with the basics. Please give us a little background on yourself and your involvement in Trouble in Paradise.

Justin Cook: Hello. I worked on the original 3 man team that started the project that became Viva Piñata. For the first game I was working under veteran/expert/clever clogs Gregg Mayles (head of design at Rare). When we finished VP, he moved onto work on Banjo nuts and Bolts and I was left with the team to work on the new VP title. So if you don't like this one it's really my fault.

Rare-Elite: Can you tell us anything about your plans about VP2 after the release. Will there be downloadable content, special Card actions, or anything like that?

Justin Cook: We'd like to keep the cards coming for those people who enjoy the game and keep playing. We don't have plans for DLC. We really focussed on the cards because we thought it was something interesting, and something we can work on without having to go through a long certification process or tie up the team for a long time.

Mundo Rare: Is it possible for the Xbox Vision Camera to read codes of the Vision Cards displayed in devices such as Zunes, iPods and iPhones or do you always need the physical card in order to make it work?

Justin Cook: No we've tried it here (successfully) with the image on a zune, i-pod, from the computer monitor. As longh as the image is sharp enough it should work.

NeoGAF: Given that the dimensions of the garden are the same in VP2 as they were in VP1, that strikes me as the VP team acknowledging that while the size of the garden was of sufficient size, maybe the gameplay was somewhat restrictive. If that is indeed the case of how the VP team felt, how did the VP team go about adding functionality, without hindering what made the first VP loved by many? My wife wanted me to ask.

Justin Cook: Thats a good question, congratulate your wife! OK because I was 'in control' this time I asked myself the same question. I wanted to keep the things that people loved but create a better experience. So we've kept the animal behaviour and tried to make the game easier to play. Weve added tools to let you do what you want more easily. Then we've added things that compliment the idea of attracting animals and getting them to stay (like the traps) and we've added things to do with your pinata once they live in the garden. (like tricks and parties). We also looked at the limits of the last game and tried to give the player more. So even though the area is the same size we've crunched stuff so the limits are more generous.

Donkey Kong Universe: Is there any truth to the rumoured title of Viva Pinata Dos? Furthermore, were there any other titles being considered before ultimately calling it Trouble in Paradise?

Justin Cook: Yes we had a few attempts at a new title. Because party animals had come out we didn't want to call this game VP2 because it may be confusing. The team struggled with titles for a long time. Failed attempt included:

Viva Piñata - Weed it and Reap
Viva Piñata - Traps and Tricks
Viva Piñata - Pester and his Mole Esther
Viva Piñata - Vini Vidi Sweetie
Viva Piñata - Living On The Hedge
Viva Piñata - International Candy Master
Viva Piñata - Candy Calamity
Viva Piñata - The Hills Are Alive With the Sound Of Two Sticks
Viva Piñata - Live and Tricking

So as you can see we probably chose quite wisely.

Perfect Rare: Who's idea was it to make full use of the Xbox Vision, how long will (can) you keep the idea alive? And the Vision feature seems kind of important, but why doesn't VP2 include a Vision Camera?

Justin Cook: Three questions for the price of one. OK. It was our senior engineer - Will Bryan who developed the camera feature. He asked if we could use it and I was like 'Oh Yes!'. We have lots of stuff we can do with the cards so if people are interested we can keep making them for 12 months or longer. Finally the vision camera stuff is really a kind of cherry on top of a very tasty cake. We knew not everyone has a camera so you can enjoy VP:TiP without the camera but it adds lots of fun if you do have one. I guess as far as we were concerned a camera bundle seemed like it may make the game more expensive, and we'd like more people to play so we were happy to have the game shipped on it's own.

Mundo Rare: We had the chance to try Troube in Paradise in New York last month and one of the things that surprised me the most were the Vision Cards. It's as simple as holding your card in front of the camera and voila, there you have a new pinata. Part of us thought a device like that goes against the whole goal of the game. Why work hard to attract new species if you can make them pop up just like that? Don't you think that the Vision Cards could ease some tasks too much and some gamers may see them as cheating?

Justin Cook: Yes you are partially right. But the cards work in a very similar way to crates, in the last game you can 'cheat' by getting someone to send you all the pinata so you don't have to play. However some people may get more from the game by using the cards. Or there may be people who use the cards when they get stuck. Or some people will use them after they have completed as much of the game as they can. We just thought it was a neat little idea that might make some people more interested in the game, or allow those people who dedicate so much time to the game a chance to go back and see new stuff in a game that they have thoroughly beaten. We think the cards make more fun than they spoil.

Rare Witch Project: Is the current lack of plans for additional downloadable content due to the potential of a future installment in the series? If so, would the option be reconsidered should plans for a third Viva Piñata fall through?

Justin Cook: We don't have any plans for DLC. As far as the team is concerned we are taking a break from VP for a while to make something new. But things change quickly in the software industry so next week it may be a completely different story :).

Pinata Island: What was the design process behind the in-game achievements?

Justin Cook: We liked the spread of achievements in the first game but we didn't like the points all being the same. So we changed their values and we tried to use the achievements to point players towards some of the new stuff in the game. For example we have a golf award.

Rare-Elite: For the Dutch gamers/fans: Will there be an option to play the game in its original English version. There is a massive quantity of dissapointed Dutch gamers on the fora who really would like that option in VP2 as well as in BK. If not, is there a special reason to not include that option?

Justin Cook: The developers don't have control over that. It's all to do with the languages available and what region the console is set to. I'm sorry you can't get the language you'd like, and I don't have an answer.

NeoGAF: Ok, this is more towards the technological side. A few years ago, Gregg had an interview that said a lot of what pushes VP1 comes from Ghoulies (development tools) and Conker (animation), did the move to doing VP2 with the R1 engine entirely on the 360 make your job a lot easier than what Gregg had to deal with in VP1 in regards to the gameplay?

Justin Cook: Lots of the tools and stuff transferred directly over from the first game. We worked fast so where possible we used what we had, pushing new tools where we needed to. My job was easier because we had a game that worked from day 1. All i had to do was fit in the new bits and tweak some of the old stuff.

Donkey Kong Universe: Any references to more classic Rare titles within the game? We saw a 'sequel' to Ghoulies as one reference to the game among others from Kameo, Conker, Jet Force Gemini, Banjo-Kazooie, and the TiP demo had the Saucer of Peril from Banjo-Tooie, and it'd be interesting to see if the team has extended beyond that. Anticipation references, perhaps?

Justin Cook: We put all sorts of references in. We find them amusing and we love it when people find them. I'd rather not spoil things by telling you whats in the game.

Perfect Rare: The Viva Pinata show on tv has been a small success in the Netherlands. Is VP2 somewhat more inspired by the show or can we see it as two separate things?

Justin Cook: They are sepearte things. Early on we decided that Rare knows games and should try to make the best game they can. 4kids know about TV so we should let them make the best show they could. We have crossed over a little more this time. The Professor Pester plotline was inspired by the TV show.

Mundo Rare: Well, what kind of influence do the weather changes have in the game?

Justin Cook: The weather works in a similar way to before. When it rains the plants get watered, and you should plant as many seeds as you can :). We have added snow to the garden. If you put snow down and it rains then flakes will fall instead of raindrops.

Rare Witch Project: Viva Pinata:Classic featured a level system that extended to rank 108, but it offered the player little except personal satisfaction for reaching that milestone. Will maxing out VP:TiP reward the player in some way?

Justin Cook: We've put some 'endings' into the game this time. You can send all the pinata species to parties to complete the destroyed computer records. You can complete all the international party challenges, which unlocks new items and accessories. Or you can try to get the new 'ultimate' Piñata. I hope you'll find all these things more satisfying. Oh and you can keep levelling up, because the cap has been removed.

Pinata Island: Was the development team used for recording the pinata voices again? Did you have any interesting stories from that process?

Justin Cook: Yes. More people volunteered this time. My new audio is for the Parmadillo. It's not my best work. Once you've seen someone pondering what noise a lovesick Ostrich is supposed to make you might appreciate the effort we put in :).

Rare-Elite: Did MS not find it a bit troublesome that you decided to include the Xbox Vision feature? As you said. Certification is skipped. Can people with the right knowledge miss-use that option gameplay wise or worse?

Justin Cook: No because the camera only allows players access to stuff in the game. But some things that are in the game we not accessible through normal play, so the cards allow you to see more of the work we've done than you would have been able to see without the camera.

NeoGAF: Ok, this is about retail. I'm sure you know that VP2 is 39.99 here in the states and a few other places, how did that go over with the team given how Microsoft mishandled VP1 at retail?

Justin Cook: We liked the lower price point. I always thought a game for the whole family should be good value. So I'm pleased with the new price point and I guess that means you'll have some spare cash to put towards Banjo? :)

Donkey Kong Universe: With no plans for DLC for TiP, does this mean that the items available for download in the original will be available within the game from the moment you turn it on? When I played VP2 in New York, the items were available, but seeing how that was a demo version and not the complete version, one wonders.

Justin Cook: Yes you'll be able to get everything from the first game. The items are unlocked as you level up but there isn't anyrthing from the first game that is missing in the second. We adden more content, didn't take content out.

Perfect Rare: What can we expect of Co-Op? Are there any features you haven't told anyone yet?

Justin Cook: Co-op is available on the same box for 2 players. This is a slightly different version of the game because the 2nd player gets some abilities that aren't usually available. We also have up to 4 player over live. Sharing a garden with your friends.

Mundo Rare: We loved the mutations in the first game, are we going to be able to cross more species in Trouble in Paradise?

Justin Cook: We have some more stuff like that this time around. I hope you really like what we've done with the wild-cards. There arn't any more crosses like the Pigxie but there are a few new suprises.

Rare Witch Project: Can you speak more about the new piñata races? How are they handled, and what factors determine a victory?

Justin Cook: The pinata races are open to all comers. Your chosen pinata races down a track. You get to move them up and down the field. If they are on a surface they like they move faster. If they are right behind another pinata they slipsteam so you can catch up the leaders. There are some loathers in crates you can shoot ahead or drop behind. And you can slow down a little if you want to stay in the slipstream. We've had quite a lot of fun with it, even if we do end up arguing about who is the best racer :).

Pinata Island: Were there any entertaining examples of completely unexpected pinata behavior that you experienced during development?

Justin Cook: The best example I can give was a demo we prepared for the MVP event. Our producer Adam Park created a desert garden. And planted Prickly Pears - a new weed. After showing the garden off a couple of times he found that the pinata were vanishing. The prickly pear grows a fruit that makes pinata non-resident. He didn't realise until the point he was demo-ing a ghost town :).

Rare-Elite: You can learn pinata's new there a way to train your pinata so they get better stats for minigames?

Justin Cook: No we kept the mini-games light and fun. We wanted the new features to be playable by anyone from the youngest novice all the way through to people like yourselves. I've no doubt you'll tell us if we got the balance on that right.

NeoGAF: This question is about you, your team and the near future. Growing up, I always viewed Rare as this ninja-like secretive, awesome company that delayed games a lot. Now, Rare is an open, awesome company that gets games out on time. In my past experiences, something like this, as it happens over time, changes the environment and mood of the workplace. Did that happen at Rare in recent years as to where there is now full confidence in the games being made since they aren't continuous.

Justin Cook: I guess the industry has changed. What was Ok in the past isn't really OK now and we'd like to be more reliable, make the best games, and keep the people who buy our games informed. At the core we are still trying to make the best games possible, it's just more important to us that we look after our community.

Donkey Kong Universe: Back in the day, there were many crazy rumours about how the Piñata universe worked. Some of us were actually expecting to see a backstory that would explain why all those piñatas live there and what is their goal in life. If you think about it, the whole point of a piñata's existence is to get filled with candy so a bunch of kids can smash it to death during a birthday party. See the irony there? Don't you think that you have a hell of a concept waiting to be exploited?

Justin Cook: Very much so. If and when we decide to make more VP games, theres a rich seam of material there that we can delve into when we need to.

Perfect Rare: For all people who like graphics, could you tell us some new things you have done with that in VP:TiP?

Justin Cook: I'll try. I'm not very technical. :) The biggest change is HDR lighting. So the screen reacts to the different lighting conditions. This gives a lovely effect over the whole game, especially when you compare the quality of the light in the Desert dessert and Pinarctic reagions to the main garden. There's also been some work done on the water to make it more sparkly and interesting. I guess the features are subtle but we never thought the game was ugly before :).

Mundo Rare: You were working on a connection between 360's Trouble in Paradise and DS' Pocket Paradise through the Xbox Vision Camera, but it didn't happen. It's easy to assume that this was a tricky issue, being a connection between systems coming from rival companies. However, you told 1UP the cause was solely that everything happened too late in the development cycle. Is it really possible that you didn't think about it before?

Justin Cook: Yes wew are that stupid. :D The DS title was just about complete before we (on the TiP) team thought about the link. We did have it running but with the DS title about to go into certification it was just a feature too late. Shame...

Rare Witch Project: Now that most of the broad questions are out of the way, I would like to ask something oddly specific: With the inclusion of new plants in VP:TiP, are we bound to see a thousand or so more Flutterscotch variants? Will they be more cooperative this time around?

Justin Cook: There are no more Flutterscotch variants, but I have played about with their requirements a little to make them a bit more interesting. I hope all the creatures are slightly more co-operative this time around, we tried to make their brains bigger :D.

Pinata Island: Is there anything that you would like to share with us about Trouble in Paradise that hasn't been asked yet?

Justin Cook: Thats a good question. I'm reluctant to tell you more about the game, because part of what we tried to do was give players somewhere to explore. I will say that unlocking the credits is more useful than it normally is in games, and i'll leave it at that.

Rare-Elite: If you look at the game in a gameplay mechanic or technical aspect, what was the hardest thing to achieve in VP2, that did not get in VP1? (not including the Cardconcept)

Justin Cook: Online. When you have to synch up a garden full of stuff for 4 players no matter where they are in the world things become tricky. I think the online play works very nicely. It's a lovely change of pace to have a truly co-operative experience over live. The team has enjoyed whole days in each others gardens.

Donkey Kong Universe: How does Photo Mode work? How exactly can you print your pictures?

Justin Cook: Photo mode allows you to take pictures in your garden. The pictures can be stored on your Xbox 360 or uploaded to the website. Once they have been uploaded you have access to them through your PC. We've also given players the option of using the photo mode to create VP cards. So you can share your pinata with the world and people can scan in your picture and get an animal from your garden.

Perfect Rare: Are there new 'human' characters in VP2? And what are their roles in the game?

Justin Cook: We didn't add any new helpers. We have tweaked their behaviour to make them a little more useful. Costolot is back. When it came to deciding where to concentrate our efforts we thought players would prefer new pinata species over new helpers.

Mundo Rare: As a Spanish speaker, I always loved the whole Mexican theme of Viva Piñata and its title. And knowing how much Rare loves to play with words, I felt a little disappointed when the titles of the sequels were announced. Why didn't you stick to the Spanish puns? Some people were already talking about Viva Pinata Dos or other easy references that many English speakers would've understood.

Justin Cook: Part of the reason was the link to the DS titles title. And once again perhaps we were stupid but I don't think VP Dos was one of the suggestions we came up with.

Rare Witch Project: If you had an additional month of development, what section of the game would you work on further?

Justin Cook: It would take more than a month but I'd really like to have a go at the shop interface. It works perfectly well but when we refreshed everything else there wasn't time to spring clean that as well.

Rare-Elite: I might have missed it in the articles... but are the romance dances still in...and whats your favorite??

Justin Cook: The dances are still there plus all the new critters have some new dances. It's tricky to choose a favourite but the Sarsgorilla is pretty funny, if only for the musical choice thats been made.

NeoGAF: What may have bothered you in VP1 that you were happiest to fix in VP2?

Justin Cook: Lots :). It's easy to critisise your own work as soon as you can't do anything about it. I think we've made lots of improvements to the way the game plays. We've added new shortcuts and tools, and streamlined the alerts. Anything that makes it easier for the player to do what they want is good. And I've found this game to be more addictive than last time just because I can do what I need to faster.

Donkey Kong Universe: Was it intended for the fish in Paper Pets to be Roysten from the start?

Justin Cook: We always wanted a fish pinata. It's the only pinata in the game that you don't get. We always had Roysten in mind when it was being done but we weren't sure everyone would get the reference.

Mundo Rare: In addition to the photo mode, will we also be able to record video? or at least have the posibility of replaying the most important events?

Justin Cook: You can see any cut-scenes that get unlocked, from the encyclopaedia. We don't have video recording unfortunately…

Rare Witch Project: Do you believe that a player who did not enjoy the overall feel of the first game would like its sequel, and, if so, why? What types of additions were made to appeal to a broader, potentially older audience?

Justin Cook: I think if you didn't like the game last time because there was lots to learn and there were lots of controls we've improved this. So you should give the new game a go. If you just hate having fun in a garden with papery animals then, things havn't changed that much :)

Rare-Elite: For vp2 you had to use the older concept. So you could only change smaller things. Is there anything that you would have done different in the coreconcept if you were the director of VP1. I mean if you could build the VP from ground up...what fundamental would you change.

Justin Cook: Thats a tough question. I can only really say that if I get to build a new game I want to try something different. We have seen the pinata attracted into a garden and their behaviour - so it'd be nice to see other aspects of life on pinata island...

Donkey Kong Universe: Ok, this is a silly one but I have to ask. Have you ever thought about making a platypus piñata? I'd love to see one. And what about extinct species? Showing them as a rare, forgotten kind of piñatas could make kids become aware of the problem with endangered species.

Justin Cook: We started work on a platypus for this very game. It was a cross breed like the Pigxie but we ran out of time. As for extinct species.... you tell me when you play.
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